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Airwaves To Be Cleaned Up After Five Years Of Uncontrolled Growth

January 3, 1995

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ Greek television isn’t just democratic. It’s a free-for-all.

The latest American blockbuster movie, live strip shows, political pulpits and phone-in auctions are all yours, free, at the flip of a channel.

Fighting for the attention of Greece’s 4.5 million delighted viewers are 12 licensed stations and nearly 180 unlicensed ``pirates″ who can elbow their way onto an occupied frequency or get their footage from the corner video store.

The unruly situation has not only angered the licensed stations, it has the United States up in arms over violations of intellectual property rights that cost U.S. companies $60 million in lost copyright fees in 1993 alone.

On Dec. 2, U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor put Greece on America’s ``priority watch list″ because of widespread infringement of intellectual property rights by unlicensed stations.

``It is a problem, a problem that can be dealt with,″ Press Minister Evangelos Venizelos said last month.

The Socialist government is expected to submit new broadcast legislation to Parliament in early 1995 that would crush pirates after handing out about 20 licenses and frequencies according to strict economic and ethical criteria.

It will set strict guidelines on ownership of television stations, and a code of conduct will address the ``protection of individuals and private lives, issues of decency and political content,″ Venizelos said.

The law also aims to block U.S. trade sanctions. Kantor issued an April deadline for a crackdown on the piracy that has made Greece the fourth largest violator of U.S. copyrights in the world, behind Italy, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. officials here say Washington has long been frustrated by the lack of action against piracy.

But a crackdown may not be easy. The pending legislation is raising charges by some stations that the government wants to limit free speech. Local politicians also may be reluctant to lose their modern-day soapboxes.

``This kind of station is the heart of democracy and we will keep it alive no matter which fascist is running the Press Ministry,″ Vasilis Levendis, president of the fringe Party of Centrists and Ecologists, told his viewers.

Levendis began broadcasting on private Channel 67 shortly after the state abolished its television monopoly in 1989, leaving the broadcast media unregulated in this nation of 10.2 million. AGB Hellas, the local ratings company, estimates that 4.5 million Greeks turn on their TVs every day.

Levendis’ station features him sitting alone behind a desk sipping coffee and talking politics with callers for hours at a time. He harangues every other party as well as the government.

People not only watch Levendis. More than 100,000 Athenians voted for him in a parliamentary by-election that he came close to winning three years ago.

Venizelos said the government wants open airwaves, but it also has to rein the chaos that erupted five years ago when popular demand forced the state to abolish a decades-old media monopoly.

In consequence, stations began broadcasting on any frequency they could capture, retroactively petitioning for a license after they were established. But in five years, only 12 licenses have been issued.

Small-scale pirates often cause most copyright damage. Industry experts say that the cost of setting up a pirate station in a neighborhood, or small village with a few thousand residents, can run as little as $5,000.

``All they have to do is go and out and buy a $200 video cassette recorder, rent a tape and start broadcasting. They are small but they do their damage,″ said industry watchdog Steve Pavlou.

Pavlou heads a non-profit group representing the American entertainment industry, local distributors and Greece’s two largest private networks.

In five years he has been unable to put much of a dent in piracy, even though he has sued 20 stations for copyright infringement. None of the cases has even made it to court yet.

``Many of these small stations are supported by local salami-and-cheese ventures and many of them still exist because the local politician gets air time,″ Pavlou said.

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